Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Norwegian big walling

I just got back from 3 weeks in Arctic Norway climbing on the 400m North face of Blamann with Dave Macleod and later Calum Muskett. The aim was to have a go at free climbing one of the aid routes up the central steepest part of the face. Disko 2000 takes a direct line through a series of huge roofs. I saw the trip as an amazing opportunity to learn some new things from a pair of very experienced climbers, I left with no expectations.

The wall, from base camp
Arriving into Tromso airport to midnight sun and meeting Dave was an odd experience. I felt somewhat self conscious setting off on a big climbing trip with someone whose climbing had inspired me for many years, but who I'd never actually met in person. Luckily I was able to prove useful straight away, by hiking huge loads of ropes and gear up to the base of the wall. Dave was recovering from ankle surgery so had to take it easy with the carrying. I felt relieved that even if I wasn't going to be able to climb anything, I'd already done something towards making the trip a success! 

Dave kicking steps to the base of the wall
It looked as though the wildly overhanging first half (roughly 200m) would be the crux for free climbing, after this the face slabbed out a bit. Our plan was to aid the steep part and get fixed ropes in place which would allow us to work the pitches. The aid turned out to be pretty scary! A particularly bad moment was when Dave was aiding his way up an expanding flake 5m directly above me. Each peg he hammered in the flake detached further from the wall. I could hear it creaking. I cowered behind a small roof, trying to get as much of my body out of the firing line as possible in case Dave, the flake or both were to detach from the wall. That day we climbed until 6am, the north facing aspect meaning we were climbing in the sun in the middle of the night. Around midnight there was this spectacular, seemingly never-ending sunrise/sunset.

Once we had the first four pitches fixed, Dave decided to spend a day working some moves on the lower pitches whilst I offered to go aid soloing above to get our fixed ropes higher. I've always been fascinated with the idea of rope soloing. The whole face was enveloped in cloud that day, it felt wild to be up high on the wall, in my own little bubble of visibility inside the swirling clouds. Aiding pitch 7 I was required to do a pendulum 4m to my right to switch crack systems. I puzzled about how we would free climb this part. I spotted a jug miles out to my right, "I wonder if it would be possible to just jump to that?" I thought... 

rope solo fun-times

Disko 2000 shares the first two pitches with an existing free route called Arctandria. Pitch two gets 8a+, the crux of Arctandria. 40m of perfect clean corner with a thin crack in the back. The crack is so thin in sections that it has to be aid climbed using very thin beaks. We left a few of these in as protection when free climbing, I didn't like the idea of testing them. My first work session on this pitch was dispiriting. There was body-length of climbing that I just couldn't figure out. It seemed to either require crimping on impossibly small edges or standing on impossibly blank smears. I went down to camp disheartened. It then rained for four days straight, sat in the tent for hours upon hours I did not rate my chances of climbing that corner!

When the rain finally stopped I went back up for another play. I found a way of doing the move, which involved a crazy "crucifix" style palm out behind me, followed by a desperate "windmill" move to snatch a fingerlock. It was on. The next day we waited anxiously for conditions, heading up to climb late in the evening. It felt dreamlike as I climbed smoothly up to the precarious rest stood on a sloping shelf below the crux. I expected to fall. I felt my left hand opening on the crimp in the crack. I thought I was off right up until the moment I found myself holding the fingerlock at the end of the crux. For sure one of my best climbing performances to date. Brilliant. Dave climbed the pitch in the Polar twilight shortly after me. We were getting it done!

The crux of pitch 2

The next day we tried the other 4 of the first 5 pitches. Dave pulled out a smooth send of pitch 4, another amazing 8a+ pitch. This one climbing in and around multiple roofs on crimps. It was particularly impressive since it happened to be pouring with rain at the time. I was getting soaked at the belay, but the pitch was staying dry! I wasn't able to do one of the moves on this pitch. I would have loved to be able to climb it, in fact, it may have inspired me to do some fingerboarding!

Dave on pitch 4

The other highlight of the day was pitch 5, the "Kalk & Gummi" roof as it was dubbed by the first aid ascentionists. It's for sure one of the most eye-catching pitches on the route. A 45 degree overhanging finger crack, with some wild crux moves to catch a jug on the lip. The problem was that the crack seemed to be permanently soaked in a thick black slime. Amazingly it became apparent that the finger-locks were so bomber you could use them even in the wet. We took it in turns having goes at leading the pitch, making a paste of chalk and slime, which turned out to be slightly more sticky that just slime! Water was running down my arms as I pulled between locks. Catching the jug on the lip and cutting loose has to be one of the most heroic positions I've ever found myself in! If I was to design a free climb I couldn't ask for a more perfectly positioned hold.

Dave on the lip of the Kalk & Gummi roof
The next day we jugged up to the top of the Kalk & Gummi roof with the aim of free climbing to the top from there. We soon found ourselves underneath pitch 7, the dyno pitch. Dave went up on our fixed rope and much to my disappointment, found a way of free climbing around the dyno move, going right a few meters higher. It looked desperate. He offered to lead the pitch his way, but I had a nagging feeling that I'd regret it if I didn't at least have a go at the dyno. I asked if it would be ok for me to have a bash first. Both feet pasted on smears and eyeing up the jug way off to my right, it suddenly looked a lot further away and less jug-like. Detaching brain, I flung myself sideways across the void, touched the hold and skittered off downwards to meet Dave at the belay 8m below. I think both Calum and Dave thought I was completely mad when I mentioned I was going to have another go. The second failed attempt left me with blood pouring out of my right hand and visibly shaking from adrenalin. I was getting closer! Dave suggested moving in more of an arc motion rather than a straight line. I thought of what Johnny Dawes might say, "you've got to find the fast currents". I visualised my path through the air like one of those Donnie Darko movement trains.  Actually maybe I didn’t do any of these things, anyway, I stuck it! Just. Feet pedaling wildly I stood up on the shelf I'd jumped to. I had to stand there for about ten minutes to stop shaking enough to lead the rest of the pitch. 

Disco 2000, 8a+ Blåmman from Dave MacLeod on Vimeo.


Incredible climbing after the dyno on pitch 7
This pitch was the end of our fixed ropes. We were just over half way up the wall. The weather was starting to look pretty terrible. It seemed to be raining on both sides of us. Calum decided to head down, leaving me and Dave to press on towards the top. Both of us fully expecting to bail when it started raining in ten minutes time. But it didn't. Somehow the storm was holding off. The route now followed a large corner system which turned out to be pretty wet, Dave pulled out an amazing lead of a pitch that would be solid E5 if it were dry. There followed a somewhat gruesome squeeze chimney that turned out to be my lead. As we climbed higher the weather looked worse and worse. I started to get pretty scared at the prospect of navigating our way back down the wall in the storm should we have to bail. I was seconding the last pitch to the top of the wall as the heavens opened and we were both soaked to the skin. Amazing timing!

Summit! In the pouring rain
I was disappointing not to be able to redpoint pitch 4, but happy with how I climbed on the rest of the route. We did it in the best style we could, given some atrocious weather; redpointing the first 5 pitches over two days (I managed 4 of these), then climbing the rest of the route to the top on day 3. The one day free ascent is still there for the taking and would be a very good effort indeed!

Topo of Disko 2000 free route


  1. Hi,
    Congratulations on your amazing achievements man !!!
    I m impressed and happy on your behalf.
    I met you several times on yosemite this spring, with bronwyn, and you both seemed so relaxed and nice, just about too launch your way up the hardest things.. Impressive stuff.. So it's cool to see you crushing some great lines ibn my country. Welcome back anytime !

  2. Hey, totally weird question for the new year. Did you used to live in Archway, in London? Because you remind me a lot of a Jacob Cook I knew there who also loved climbing.

    If not, beware you may have a doppleganger! If so, well, Morgane says hi.

    Happy new year anyway and I love your climbing!